“Marriage is all about finding the partner of our dreams,
a storybook wedding, and living happily ever after.”
How do you feel about that statement? You’ve probably already discovered it isn’t true. And yet society continues to perpetuate that myth. Most of us go into marriage with some variation on these expectations. As we plan the wedding, with its decorations and photo moments, it’s all about us and our own happiness stories.
The Scriptures present a different viewpoint. They make it clear that we are not necessarily the focal points of our marriages. Marriage is about God and His great story, the ultimate focus of which is the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). As a child of God, every aspect of our lives—especially our marriages—have to be seen in that context. Our marriages cannot be separated from our missions, especially as missionaries. But on a practical level, this may mean we are in for some big surprises…
Marriages God used for His mission
Jacob thought he’d married the girl of his dreams only to wake up the next morning with her homely older sister. He then spent the rest of his married life in the middle of a no-holds-barred rivalry between his four jealous wives. Out of that nightmare, however, came Joseph—whose equally eventful life led to salvation and blessing for many, and the 12 patriarchs and the 12 tribes of Israel!
Esther, the most gorgeous woman in the land, was chosen to be King Xerxes’ trophy bride during the Exile. While some scholars question why a Jewish girl would agree to marry a Gentile king, the account makes clear that God had orchestrated her marriage “for such a time as this” (Esth. 4:14, NASB). It was her marriage and her willingness to put her personal happiness (and life!) on the line that saved the Jews from genocide at the hands of their enemies.
Hosea was commanded by God to “go take to yourself a wife of harlotry” (Hos. 1:2). It is not clear whether Hosea’s wife, Gomer, was already a prostitute when he married her or whether he knew she would leave him later to become one. Either way, Hosea had no expectations of a fairytale marriage. He knew from the outset that his marriage was to be a living parable by which God would speak to the people of his age, calling them to repentance in the midst of their spiritual adultery. For that purpose, God specifically led Hosea into a marriage filled with uncertainty and pain.
In each of these marriages, God ordained or allowed extremely challenging factors in order to accomplish His mission through them.
Likewise today, we see marriages God has ordained to fulfill a mission. Consider Jim Elliot, whose marriage to Elizabeth was cut short by martyrdom at the hands of the Waodani Indians. Jim was called to be a martyr while Elizabeth was called to be a widow. And yet her gifting as a writer provides a story of dedication and commitment that inspires us half a century later.
One of Jim Elliot’s famous lines still resonates throughout the Christian world: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Or consider Sachiko in Aomori, Japan, who felt led to marry a young evangelist named Kazutoshi Mitsuhashi to literally support his ministry. Pastor Mitsuhashi was paralyzed in one arm and both legs. Sachiko, who was a nurse, would pull him to his various preaching points in rural Japan in a cart behind her bicycle. Before elevators became common, she carried him on her back up and down the station stairways when he traveled by train. Their marriage illustrated Jesus’ words, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23).
Missionaries face the same unique stresses that pastors face in our homelands: lack of privacy, overly high expectations, always being on call, financial pressures. Add to that cultural and language differences that complicate both ministry and daily living. Tack on distance from one’s homeland, which makes it difficult to attend family gatherings and celebrations, to care for elderly parents, to be there for kids struggling in college, and to enjoy the many benefits of belonging to a larger church. These factors may force missionary couples to pull together and strengthen their marriages, or, they pull marriages apart. Either way the struggles are both real and normal, so don’t be dismayed or ashamed.
At the same time, few things are more devastating to a ministry than a disintegrating marriage. There are specific steps you can and should take to avoid marital shipwreck:
- Be on the alert against sexual temptation and emotional entanglements outside of marriage. Avoid one-on-one time with members of the opposite sex. Have an accountability partner to help you control what you view online and in the media.
- Plan regular dates with your spouse just to have fun. Also plan regular times to share your heart needs and to pray together.
- Be intentional about constantly affirming your spouse and expressing appreciation for all they do, both for you personally and for your ministry. Be each other’s most enthusiastic cheering squads. Your spouse can never receive too much praise from you.
- Make marriage counseling a part of your routine (whether you think you need it or not!). There are many options: find a nearby counselor, or one further away via Skype; yearly attend a couples’ retreat, or visit a counseling center such as Cornerstone Counseling Center in Thailand or Link Care in Fresno, California. This will help diffuse issues before they damage your marriage.
- If your marriage is truly in crisis, consult with your mission or sending church about taking a leave of absence to focus on restoration and healing. Don’t let ministry priorities or financial factors allow your most important human relationship to collapse.
As a missionary, God has a special purpose and mission for your marriage. He intends your marriage to be a living parable of perseverance, unconditional love, grace, forgiveness, and intimacy. As the people you minister to see you working through your own marriage struggles, it will give them hope and positive examples for their own marriages. You may or may not come to understand the purpose of your marriage struggles in this life, but you can be sure that they are not in vain.